From Kampung to Kosmo

Ok, I meant cosmo(politan), but the double k’s were too catchy to pass up.

In Malay, the word kampung literally means village. While Kemaman wasn’t a true kampung in its entirety, after a few random turns off of any main road, a kampung was usually waiting for me in all it’s glory, which usually included sightings of village kids chasing down stray dogs and chickens down narrow alleys. Kuala Lumpur, on the other hand is basically your typical, multi-racial, highly advanced big city and while kampungs can also be found in and around the city, you can easily live here without ever really coming face to face with one. In fact, you could move to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow and if you were selective enough about where you live, who you hang out with, and where you find entertainment, you could probably live here and not even know you’re in Asia. In fact, I have met a large number of expats here (they are literally crawling all over this city) who live such sheltered expat lifestyles that aside from the odd trip around Asia or within the country, there is a tendency to stick with familiar Western comforts and then some. Actually, let’s just say that many of them live better than they ever would back home. Now, while I’m not trying to knock this as I’m not entirely innocent either, I noticed after speaking with a number of expats that the thirst for exploration or understanding the local culture was sometimes lacklustre and at times non-existent. While this makes me sad, my empathetic self remembers the uncertainty, anxiety and fear that can come with making such a big move abroad, which makes me consider the idea that if perhaps I had moved straight to Kuala Lumpur rather than Kemaman, I may have hung on to all of the things and people that felt like home to me. I like to think I’m more of an adventurer than that but when you feel as displaced as I did, sometimes the thought of getting on the next flight back home is embarrassingly tempting. And so, if you’re not forced to climb outside your comfort zone and into more terrifying and exciting territory, chances are, you just may not.

Usually, when I am in the midst of such conversations with expats who are more interested in discussing where to get the best manicure, live-in maids, and shopping malls, I like to slide in some educational tidbits about what it was like to live in Kemaman: befriending the locals, learning real Malaysian crafts, finding out where to get the best roadside otak-otak, visiting the night markets and sampling literally everything that looked unfamiliar. I like to share the cultural lessons about food, family, and customs that were passed down to me by Umi, my batik painting instructor, who probably was my biggest link to learning about your run-of-the-mill daily family life in Malaysia. I’ve heard from people here that they feel Malaysia has become one big melting pot of cultures and that it’s driven by advancement and the desire to be more “Western”. To these people, I would first like to say that KL is not an accurate representation of the nation by a long-shot and while I used to hold similar views on its modernization, I am rather more impressed by how far this city has come in the last few decades after reading more about its history. Malaysian culture is alive and well and simply needs be sought out, beyond the distracting lights of the city’s skyscrapers and endless shopping malls. I know there are wet markets of all kinds, a lovely Krafts Komplex where batik painting and other Malay handicrafts can be learned, and plenty of food stalls and restaurants focusing on local cuisines. I guess when they are in such close proximity to 5-star steakhouses and sushi restaurants, the appeal to try a 4 ringgit Mee Mamak or Nasi Lemak falls on the wayside. I even admit that since moving here, I’ve been sucked into the zone of dining at non-local places, shopping at clean, organized grocery stores with imported food items, and I haven’t visited the Krafts Komplex once, despite all of my intentions to do so. But, like we do in all new places, it’s just a matter of being charmed by novelty and once it wears off, like it always does, one could only hope to find the soul of the city that only lies off the beaten bath. Just behind the Petronas Twin Towers, I swear.

After living in 3 small towns over the last decade, I wouldn’t consider myself a big city slicker entirely, as I often feel overwhelmed , overstimulated, and uninspired after some time in any large city. However, being in KL is definitely a welcomed change and gives me the sense that somebody finally saw my “SOS” sign burning brightly from a lizard and cobra-infested jungle in Kemaman and airlifted me to civilization where I am now recovering from kampung-inflicted trauma. When I get annoyed by this or that about living here, because I’m only human and humans are endlessly hard to satisfy, I try to refrain from complaining too much. This whole blog was my platform to complain and I’m pretty sure I got most of it out of my system – thank you, readers. But seriously, everything I could possibly want to do, eat, or buy is within easy access to me, whereas I just spent almost a year feeling barred from most things I wanted to do, eat, or buy (and I can still honestly say that I liked Kemaman and I even miss it at times. How does that work? I sound like a victim of abuse).

Anyway, fear not, my condition has stabilized, my vitals are booming, and the prognosis is looking very, very good.

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